Recently, a commenter, Oryx, mentioned that she used to work as a prison librarian, and I wanted to learn more. She graciously agreed to do an interview for us, and here’s the Q&A.
How did you end up in the job? And how long were you there?
I answered an ad I found through Indeed.com, but which was originally posted on my state’s job board (even though I worked for a for-profit prison that was not managed by the state). To be honest, when I first applied, I didn’t realize it was a prison because neither the name nor the ad made it sound super obvious, and when I got called for an interview I almost didn’t go. But I had just finished grad school, and it was right when the economy was sinking and the librarianship field was in dire straits, so if nothing else I figured I’d get good interviewing experience. But they ended up hiring me and I was there for 21 months. It was all-male, minimum security. We had a strong substance abuse program, so the majority of inmates were sent there if they were on drug crimes or DUI.
Tell us a bit about what a typical day was like.
The prison library was open six days a week, two shifts per day: either the morning and afternoon or afternoon and evening. I’d get to work about 30 minutes before the library opened. If it was the morning, there would already be inmates waiting outside the door. If it was the afternoon, I’d get there right at the count time before lunch so the yard would be empty as they were all in their bunks. Each shift was open for about 3 or 4 hours. Then we’d close for an hour or two for count and the meal, then reopen.
During that half hour, I’d make copies or print documents that had been left from the day before. Inmates paid for copies and print-outs but only legal documents could be copied or printed so I had to check everything first (on the computers they only had access to Lexis-Nexis and an open office word processing program). After that, I set everything up for the day, including turning on lights, setting out sign-in/out sheets, making sure tables and chairs were in order.
Most of my day was spent in more of a manager position, as I had inmate works at the circulation desk who did all the checking in and out of books (we stilled used the old-fashioned card pockets in the back of the book) or handling newspapers and magazines. There was also a law library where the computers and typewriters were, which was also staffed by a handful of inmates. I became a notary as part of the position so I would spend a lot of the time notarizing documents, helping with book recommendations (although my workers got good at this, too), cataloging donated books, keeping circulation stats updated for my monthly report and, of course, I was there to maintain control. (I also spent a ridiculous amount of time maintaining the rules: telling inmates to make sure they sign in and out, make sure their shirts were tucked in, make sure they take their hats off, no food and drink. It’s the prison, we had a lot of policies so that was a big part of my job).
The afternoon shift was by far the busiest, because the newspapers and magazines came in during lunch. There was always a delay so the papers were a couple days behind, but the inmates didn’t seem to care. We carried USA Today and most of the major papers from around the state. Magazines were pretty broad interests like Sports Illustrated, Entertainment Weekly, Car and Driver, things like that.
Because we were minimum security, the inmates were free to come and go when the yard was open. The only exception to this was when Daylight Saving Time ended each year, and during the evening shift, it would be dark in the evening. Once the lights out in the yard turned on, the inmates were not allowed to leave the library until it closed and only after I took a count and called control up front and let them know how many inmates were leaving. I’d do a “last call” type of situation before sunset and after that they were stuck in the library until we closed. The inmates hated that and would try to leave early, but there wasn’t anything I could do (and even if they did leave early, there were always correctional officers out patrolling the grounds, so even if they stepped outside they’d usually get told to get back inside from both the COs and me).
On Fridays, I would go down to the segregation unit where inmates who have been temporarily removed from the general population stayed. I’d go around cell to cell and ask if there were any books they wanted to read then I’d bring them those books on Saturdays. There was a small bookshelf of titles that I changed out once a month or so.
I’m sure that when you went into librarianship, it wasn’t so you could spend time telling adults to tuck in their shirts. How did you adjust to that aspect of the job?
It was kind of like being a glorified babysitter in many ways. The inmate workers were there to do most of the day-to-day front line stuff of checking books out and putting books away on the shelves. I helped with readers advisory and cataloging, things that were a bit outside their scope. But since there was no guard, I was kind of the guard by default, so it was mostly my job to keep the volume down, make sure interactions didn’t escalate, that sort of thing.
Truthfully, there were a lot of rules at the prison I didn’t agree with and still don’t, like the shirt stuff. But if security came in on rounds and saw inmates with shirts untucked or hats on, both the inmate and I would get reprimanded since I was the one not doing my job by letting them come in all untucked. So part of adjusting was doing it because I didn’t want to get in trouble.
What kind of training did you get that was specific to working in a prison?
My very first day was actually spent off site at an unarmed self-defense class that everyone had to take before being allowed to set foot on the prison unaccompanied. We all had panic buttons, but I was always in the library on my own; the guard was next door. Guns were not allowed within the fence, so unarmed self-defense was the only way to go (luckily I never had to put those skills to use). They also had a two-week orientation I had to go through, although because of the timing I’d been there for about six months before I attended. Then once a year, we’d go through a week-long refresher course. We learned about the different departments and, for whatever reason, the security one was always everyone’s favorite. Several decades ago, our state had a very famous prison riot take place and they’d walk us through step by step what happened. Looking back, it’s weird to think that was the class employees loved the most but I think it was the shock factor of it all. Part of orientation also included a session where we looked for fake contraband: they turned one of the medical rooms into a cell and hid contraband, and as a group we were supposed to search the room to get a sense of the sheer creativity these inmates had.
A while back, I went through a training program to volunteer to teach courses in a local jail. (At the end of the program, they ran background checks and wouldn’t let me actually start teaching because I have civil disobedience in my background, which I apparently made me a security risk.) Anyway, the training was fascinating. One thing they really stressed was that we should constantly be on guard against being conned — that if we let down our guard at any point, an inmate would take advantage of it (like by convincing us to bring in contraband, or give them money, or who knows what else). I’m sure there was good reason for that piece of the training from a security and safety standpoint, but I still suspect they over-emphasized it (probably to ensure people took it seriously, I suppose). Anyway, does that resonate with your experience?
I don’t know if I would say such training is over-emphasized because it does happen. I think it probably seems over-emphasized because you go into this thinking you won’t think you’ll fall for it, or you’ll be able to know when you’re being conned, and you’re smart and won’t be a victim, and that just isn’t always the case. Especially since they start small, like any con. It’s a long game, so, no, they aren’t going to come right out and ask if you’ll bring in contraband or bring in money. Like, they’ll just start with flattery and see how you react to that and go from there. I have red hair and at the time it was down to my waist, really gorgeous. But during work hours I kept it up in a bun or braid, because every time I wore it down I’d get compliments from inmates which were innocuous but within context borderline inappropriate because of where we were.
Relationships between staff and inmates were obviously a big no-no and, again, it seems on the surface like such an obvious thing to stay away from but — and I’m not exaggerating — every six months, like clockwork, another female employee was getting “walked out” (or fired, basically escorted off the property) for having an inappropriate relationship with an inmate. Some were I think genuinely romantic in nature, with relationships continuing once the inmate was released. But others were the reflection of the woman being conned. Several were married. One in particular was found out because she’d written a note to the inmate which the inmate kept and said note was discovered during a routine search. Imagine getting to go home and tell your husband that story the day you lose your job.
I had an inmate working for me who had been there before I started, and I was told that my predecessor had had some kind of relationship with him, though I don’t know to what extent (gossip ran like wildfire). Even being too friendly would have counted and, well, anyway, I had the job because she was fired. So now I was managing him, and from the very beginning he was clearly trying to go the flattery route and eager to help and please me and tried a bit too hard. He said something or other that clearly crossed a line so I wrote him up for it, and as soon as he knew that I wasn’t going to fall for it like the woman before me, he did a 180 and pretty much never spoke to me again unless absolutely necessary.
Truthfully, if they were trying to con you for anything it was mostly for special privileges, like you looking the other way while they took the fruit out of the mess hall after breakfast (fruit couldn’t go to the dorms because it could be fermented and turned into hooch) or in the library it could have something like letting them have two newspapers at a time instead of one. That sort of thing. That’s why consistency was the key with all interactions, though it didn’t always go over very well.
That makes sense. So, what did you like best about the work? What was the hardest/most challenging?
I really, really enjoyed working with the inmates. It was a bit of a culture shock for me at first but once I got settled I realized that it was really just like a normal library: I had regular patrons who came in the same time every day (and, of course, I had those regular problem patrons as well) and I had to help them find books to read or access legal information. I’ve worked in libraries for 15 years, and this really wasn’t that different from the suburban public library I worked at in high school.
The hardest/most challenging had to do with patron privacy and access to information. As a librarian, those are two ideals that are of utmost importance in our field, but they don’t exist in the prison, let alone the prison library. Things that were deemed too violent or explicit were not allowed, although we didn’t have a specific list of banned books; it was mostly subjective. The inmates in the segregation unit (aka “the hole”) aren’t allowed to have hardback books because of safety concerns, so if the book they wanted was only available in hardback, I wasn’t allowed to give it to them. On the issue of patron privacy, if an inmate came in asking for Mein Kampf, he was allowed to have the book but I was supposed to inform security so they could keep an eye on the inmate to see if there was any white supremacy gang-related activity going forward or in his history.
Going in, I think I had a vague sense that these sorts of situations would come up, but I had no idea how challenging it would be for my sense of self as a librarian. If anything, it reaffirmed my initial desire to get into the field to support patron privacy and access to information, something I still strongly advocate for today.
What surprised you the most from doing this work?
I was surprised by how fulfilling it turned out to be, especially when it came to helping inmates find books or information. My favorite was when an inmate roughly my age came in looking for a book to read. He dropped out of high-school and was currently in our GED program and decided that if he was going to be stuck here he might as well make use of his time by reading all those books he should have read in high-school but didn’t. So I decided to start with The Great Gatsby, and all I told him was that it was about a gangster. He checked it out right away and within days was back asking for another book just like it.
I also used a white board out in the library foyer to share an “On This Day in History” factoid. Some inmates would stop by just to see what the new event was and on days I didn’t work it wouldn’t always get updated by my cover so they’d often want to know yesterday’s, too.
What didn’t you know when you started that ended up being important?
What I didn’t know when I started was how important the library was to the inmates. Because there was no guard in there and no bars on the windows or anything like that, it was the only place in the entire facility that didn’t feel like it was part of a prison. They could come for a couple hours of day, read the local paper from their hometown, hang out with their friends, etc. I worked hard to make it feel like a safe, “normal” space, and the inmates thanked me by looking out for me in their own ways. There were two instances where inmates were, ahem, pleasuring themselves in the library while looking at me. One I didn’t even know about until after because one of my workers went up to the guy, whispered in his ear to basically get the fuck out, and the guy did. My worker only told me because he wanted to make sure I was aware and to be on the lookout in the future. The other guy, I witnessed in action and had to call the guard over. One of the other inmates who had been in the library and saw it later told the same guard to confirm that it had happened when the masturbator started to deny it.
I was also completely unprepared for how much I’d learn about the law. It also made me a stronger advocate against the death penalty. I’d always been against it, but this experience just confirmed it. I saw guys in their 70s and 80s and they were only in there for a couple of years and it was rough, but they were going to get out eventually. Being stuck in a maximum security prison at that age is a fate worse than death.
I’m picturing the role being one of the few in a prison where you could transcend the strict control and power dynamics that must be hallmarks of prisoners’ interactions with other people who worked there. (Or maybe I’m being terribly naive.) Did you find that that was true?
Absolutely. I wasn’t a corrections officer, it wasn’t my job to keep them in line quite so much, so I do think I had a bit more … flexibility in terms of my interactions with the inmates. Nothing that crossed any lines (of which there were many), and I wouldn’t say I became friends with any of them necessarily, but I didn’t see them as ducks I had to keep in a row every single day. I wasn’t there to remind them they were in prison. So, for instance, I managed about a dozen inmates at a single time, and whenever I hired a new inmate (or was assigned one by the job person), I would allow one of my more senior workers to train the new guy. I wanted to try and give them as much autonomy as possible within allowed limitations and also encourage them to do and be more than just an inmate in prison.
I think that went hand-in-hand with the inmates wanting to look out or protect me because I wasn’t seen as one of the “bad guys.” I was frequently told the library was one of the more popular places to work because I was a good manager (which is funny because I hated being a manager, and not just because of where I worked).
I’ve always been really interested in prison reform and convinced that we’re doing ourselves as a society no favors with the way we handle incarceration (one of the reasons I wanted to volunteer at the jail). Aside from what you mentioned about the death penalty, did you come out of that job with any other takeaways about what we’re doing right / what we’re doing wrong?
We need to decriminalize drugs; that entire situation needs reform. And whether you are pro-drug-reform or not, it’s impossible to ignore that the justice system targets black men, especially when it comes to drug-related offenses. Our population was almost nearly 50/50 black and white, and if a black man was in our prison, there was probably a 90% chance he was there on a drug crime. Considering we were a substance abuse facility, with NA and AA classes, it was ridiculous to see the imbalance between the people of color in on drug crimes compared to the small number of white men in on drug crimes. And, of course, the white men almost always had shorter sentences.
I also think education within the prison system needs attention and money. We had a GED program and graduation ceremonies and everything, but I think more prisons should offer trade classes or programs, especially if you’re dealing with inmates who are in on shorter sentences and need to have a skill when they leave. We were fortunate enough to live in a state where a university offers a mail-in degree programs specifically for inmates, but paying for that from inside is near impossible. So even if an inmate wanted to set himself up for success when he leaves, he has the cards stacked against him.
I think we also need to educate society on how helping inmates succeed after release only helps all of us. I set up a section in the library with information related to re-entry resources like career centers who will work with ex-convicts, or starting your own business, stuff like that. But I can only do so much from inside; when they get out the world has a very different view of what it means to be an ex-con, and so their chances of being successful are limited simply because of society’s negative view. I do hear more about pockets that are starting businesses specifically to give jobs to men (and women) who had formerly been incarcerated and that’s a good start, but there needs to be more. They had jobs when they were incarcerated, they are hard workers, and most wanted to just do their time and go home and start fresh, but if the support system isn’t there, they’ll just be back.
Recidivism is high and it’s not only because you’re dealing with convicts. Some of it is just a cycle they can’t get out of because they don’t have any other options. If you have a good set-up selling drugs, making money, and setting your own hours and then you catch a case and are in inside for a year or two, when you get out, you know nobody is going to hire you, so you might as well keep doing what you had been doing to put food on the table for your family. It’s really heartbreaking because in most cases, these are just men who made one stupid decision and got caught. We’ve all made stupid decisions and haven’t been caught. Or we’ve been caught but have gotten away with it because of inherent privilege. I know the fates of some of the inmates who worked for me, either because of social media or I’ve even seen some walking around the city, but most of them, I have no idea what happened to them and if they managed to make a life once they got out.